Jan 24 2012

Wi-Fi Hits the Cloud

College IT managers building out wireless networks can choose between public or private clouds.

Many students heading off to college today bring a notebook, smartphone, tablet and maybe a wireless game system with them. On campus, these students expect wireless access on all of these devices, whether they're connecting from a common area, lecture hall or dormitory.

"We're preparing for the day where the wireless network is the primary network, or maybe even the only access network," says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research.

For IT departments, a growing wireless network can intensify demands for redundant hardware controllers and additional infrastructure at satellite campuses. But IT managers should also explore how Wi-Fi in the cloud can help them reduce their hardware burden, save on labor costs and simplify management.

Meraki, a public cloud networking company based in San Francisco, offers the Enterprise Cloud Controller, which provides centralized management of wireless networks via its browser-based Dashboard. Hosted at Meraki's data center, the controller supports up to 10,000 access points. And should a campus's connection with the cloud controller be lost, users can still work locally because only network management data travels over the network, not user data.

Meraki also offers built-in Layer 7 application shaping in its MR66 access points. While such a feature is unique in wireless products, it is particularly helpful on college campuses where network administrators likely need to exercise more control over online video and music bandwidth.

A Brand New Network

At Phoenix College in Arizona, students and staff returned to campus last fall to find a new wireless network built on Meraki technology, covering more than 50 acres and composed of 200-plus access points.

Now, says Dean of Information Technology Mark Koan, the new network is much easier for his limited IT staff to monitor and manage.

"The technology lets us detect how many users are hitting a particular access point, so if we deployed one of the smaller configuration access points and see that we're getting a lot of traffic to it, we can go install a larger, more powerful access point and redeploy the other one to somewhere where there's less usage," Koan says. "We can dynamically monitor where the traffic is and optimize the deployment of the access points so that bandwidth and connectivity are available for the students where they need it."

Cisco Systems' approach to Wi-Fi in the cloud is through a one-rack data center controller that supports multiple sites. In effect, the data center is the private cloud for a college's various locations, mitigating the need to put controllers at every site. Cisco's Flex 7500 Series Wireless Controller works with all Cisco access points. Each unit can support 2,000 APs, pushing out software configurations and updates, reducing the need for remote IT staff.

For Wi-Fi at most colleges, Aruba Networks recommends a private cloud that centralizes network intelligence in the data center using the Aruba 6000 Mobility Controller, which can manage up to 2,048 Aruba APs. IT managers can share the intelligence across multiple sites, as long as the WAN link is sufficient.

   Aruba 6000 Mobility  Controller  Cisco Systems Flex 7500 Series  Wireless Controller  Meraki Enterprise Cloud  Controller
 Cloud  type  Private  Private  Public
 Special  terms  Lease available  Lease available; base package comes  with 300 APs  Monthly pricing; licensed per
 AP per year